Charlotte Norton talks about her experiences of getting a Labour gain in an 'unwinnable' ward.
When I first got selected to run in Shadwell as the Labour party candidate, many people apologised to me. They told me it would be good practice for future elections. Labour had not won there for nearly a decade. Lutfur Rahman’s politics were dominant in the area, and it was regarded as one of the remaining ‘Independent’ strongholds.
I didn’t fit the profile. I was too young and female, I hadn’t been born in Tower Hamlets and I didn’t have strong links in the Sylheti community. But I knew that I could make a difference. I knew I could build bridges across cultures and communities, and I had faith in the people of Shadwell to unite.
I, and the amazing team of people who supported me, didn’t take Shadwell as lost. I live right in the middle of the ward on an estate famed for ASB and drug dealing. I saw the overflowing bins, the graffiti, the used needles and laughing gas canisters that were littered on the street. I knew that many felt unsafe in their homes. I knew that the divisive politics of Lutfur Rahman had hit our community hard, and many felt isolated.
We took to the door step, arranging 7 or 8 sessions a week, even more as polling day loomed closer. We spoke to residents and, more importantly, listened to their concerns. We picked up casework that had fallen on deaf ears for months or even years. My first month of the campaign was spent getting adequate bin provision on the estates. No job was too big or too small, and I worked with residents on everything from broken lightbulbs to a lack of hot water on an entire fourth floor. I was frequently the sole political representative at Safer Neighbourhood Team meetings or discussions around new sewage works.
I fell in love with the area that I started to call home about five years ago. Running for council threw me into the heart of the community. I spoke to community, church and mosque elders in the street, and many joined our campaign. Old Labour members, new members, and members from around London came out to be part of a campaign that would triple our ward’s contact rate.
Austerity was really cutting through on the doorstep. Although my main opposition was not the Tories, many saw this local election through a national lens and believed that Labour was the only one that could teach them a lesson. Labour’s national manifesto had a hugely popular reception in the area, and we were showing them that Labour would give them hard working Councillors to implement those values on the ground.
As the campaign moved on, we started to believe the impossible – that Labour could take one, or even both seats in the ward. We continued to fight, never wanting for one second to let this rising hope fade.
It was nearly impossible to tell who had won at the count until the very last minute. The Labour block vote was huge, larger than it had been for years. But the sitting Councillors seemed to be receiving endless personal votes, and split votes were appearing in every party combination imaginable. Many passed behind me commenting that there would be no change. But I did not believe it.
When it was announced that we had a Labour gain in Shadwell, I could not contain my joy. My fellow candidate and I hugged, and many rushed forward to congratulate both of us. The official photographer, clearly confused leaned in to ask me “Sorry, have you won?” I had to explain to him that I had not won in the sense he was referring to – but our Labour team had accomplished an impossible feat. The joy of that Labour gain overshadowed any disappointment I had for many days.
The first time I felt real sadness about losing the election was walking through the ward on the following sunny bank holiday Monday. As I passed through an estate that I had big plans for, my heart literally ached and I felt a lump rise in my throat.
But I didn’t stay down for long. Shadwell now has a Labour Councillor who can get into the correct rooms. Our branch is more united than ever and poised to lead campaigns that the community needs. We’ve got the Labour name back into every household and they’ll be watching to see what we do next. I will work hard to make sure we don’t let them down.
Shadwell, and the Labour Party have certainly not seen the last of me.
I’ve been asked by many how I managed to do it. How does someone turn an unwinnable ward into one that will almost certainly be Labour safe from the next election. I have three rules to live by:
- Believe in the platform you stand on
- Fall in love with your community
- Work hard. If you’re deciding between two things to do, do both.
Charlotte Norton is Editor of Anticipations, and ran in Shadwell Ward, Tower Hamlets in the Local Elections 2018. Follow her on Twitter at @charlottelvn90